Research

Where to recycle garden plastic #2: Garden centres

There are about 500 million plastic plant pots in circulation at any one time. Which? Gardening did a survey a few years ago and worked out that the average gardener has at least 39 (they clearly didn’t visit my shed: I’ve never exactly counted them but I must have hundreds in there).

Back in the dark ages, when I started gardening, almost every garden centre had a big box outside where you could drop off all your surplus plant pots, bedding trays and modules and if you wanted to, pick up a few you were short of to use at home.

Reusing your plastic pots, seed trays and modules is better than recycling them (because you don’t use the extra energy required to recycle old plastic into new). You make the most of a finite resource by using it until it falls apart, thus keeping it out of the wider environment and the oceans too for as long as possible.

It’s still not the whole answer: even if you do reuse plastic until it’s begging for mercy, it will eventually crack, split or get squashed by an errant wheelbarrow. So it will, inevitably, end up in the plastic waste food chain in the long run, which generally means landfill or albatross stomachs. Which is why (at the risk of repeating myself) it’s better not to have the plastic in your garden in the first place.

Still, when you can’t use all the plastic you already have, it’s good to have somewhere you can share your surplus. The only trouble is, these days almost all garden centres have stopped doing this and the big boxes full of random pots and trays have largely disappeared.

There are some notable exceptions: Haskins Garden Centres in Hampshire, Stewarts Garden Centres in Hampshire and Dorset, and Cleeve Nursery near Bristol (among others) allow customers to drop off surplus pots for other people to pick up and reuse if they want. Others, like Barton Grange in Lancashire, have struck up deals with local recycling plants.

However all the larger garden centre chains, as far as I can see, have stopped. The largest of them all, the Garden Centre Group (including Wyevales) stopped their pot recycling service in 2011. Dobbies and Notcutts were doing a ‘bring back your pots’ scheme till 2012; but these days Notcutts undertakes to recycle 75% of its waste without specifying what, and Dobbies has a stupendously vague ‘sustainability policy’ on its website which makes no mention of plastic at all.

For the Garden Centre Group, it was all about the difficulties in finding someone to take the surplus away. They recognised that the scheme was popular with customers but couldn’t find anyone to undertake the huge task of sorting the many types of plastic used to make pots before recycling them. These days, there are several options (I’ll be going into these more in part 3 of this series) – so I will ask the GCG whether they are reconsidering.

Another major group, Squires, is ‘holding discussions with suppliers’ over alternatives to plastic. That could mean anything, of course. I remember my local Squires in West Horsley, Surrey having a big box of pots outside the front, into which I would regularly skip dive for whatever I needed; I asked them why they took it away and they told me they became inundated with plastic pots nobody wanted, whereupon they were lumbered with the task of getting rid of it. You can sympathise; garden centres, after all, are meant to be selling us plants (well, mostly), not processing waste.

People do complain loudly and bitterly about the disappearance of pot recycling bins at garden centres. But the more I think about the whole idea of taking your plastic to the local garden centre, the more I think it’s not such a good thing after all. It’s easy, of course. But aren’t you just passing on the problem? There’s no guarantee that all the pots you take to the garden centre will be picked up by someone else and reused, of course.

And what happens to the ones nobody wants? Some garden centres do take great care and some considerable trouble over finding a company they know will recycle their customers’ pots: Cleeve Nursery, stand up and take a bow. Others join a service like ashortwalk which collects and repurposes rigid plastic for recycling – so again, you know it’s going to be properly recycled (this and other national pot recycling schemes will appear in more detail in the next bit of this series).

But can you really guarantee you know for sure your garden centre is recycling the pots which are left behind? I suspect this might be the reason why a lot of garden centres have now stopped collecting pots: because they are, on the whole, well run and principled places which care about the environment and don’t want to have to throw away all those pots either.

You may argue that it’s garden centres which create a lot of the plastic waste in the first place. But it isn’t, actually. It’s the suppliers who supply the garden centres: the wholesale nurseries and growers and international mass plant producers who send huge shipments of plants around the country, all in plastic pots and trays, to fill garden centre shelves. And the garden centres themselves don’t have a great deal of say in that, as there are precious few wholesalers (actually only one that I’ve found) who do supply in biodegradable pots, so if garden centres supplied only those plants they’d have very thinly stocked shelves.

The real irony is that plastics recyclers – the people who turn your plant pots into plastic garden furniture and the like – find it hard to get hold of enough rigid plastic for the products they need to make. So it’s not like there’s no demand for the things. It strikes me that the whole system needs sorting out and joining up somehow. It’s just that I don’t think garden centres are the ones who should be doing it.

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Research

Where to recycle garden plastic #1: Council tips

After you’ve been gardening for only a short time you’ll find you begin to accumulate a little eddy of plastic pots, trays, compost bags and other detritus. A lot you can re-use in the garden: by far the best way of dealing with the stuff as it’s the most efficient way to keep it out of landfill sites and our oceans.

But the more you garden, the more pots you seem to have. They arrive on every plant you buy, people give them to you, and a lot of the time (compost sacks for example) you buy them even though you’d rather not. Once you’ve got through a few seasons the eddies have turned into tidal waves and you find you are drowning in more plastic than you will ever use.

The only possible way to stop this happening is to reduce the amount of plastic arriving in your garden in the first place, by raising plants yourself from seeds or cuttings, or sourcing your plants from nurseries and garden centres who use biodegradable pots or sell bare-root. This isn’t easy, though it is possible: I’m building a listing of places you can source plastic-free plants from, so more on this later.

In the meantime, of course, you’re stuck with the pots. Use what you can: but unless you want to turn your garden into a storage depot for plastic pots, you will have to get rid of the rest (promising yourself all the while that you will not replace them with more). And that means recycling.

You have three main options:

1: Council tips

Just under half – 49% – of councils in the UK offer a kerbside recycling service for rigid plastic – that’s plastic plant pots, trays and modules.

Lucky you if you live in one of those enlightened places: I never have. My local council doesn’t collect anything but clear plastic bottles, along with the other 51% of councils in the country.

Many small local tips can’t deal with them either as the only commonly recycled type of plastic is PET1 (the kind plastic drinks bottles are made out of) and most pots are PET2 (for a guide to which plastics are which in the garden, see here).

However larger tips will often take garden plastic – so it’s worth seeking them out.

Look for “rigid plastic” on the “what can we recycle” page on your council tip’s website. Friends of the Earth provide a very handy search tool on their website where you can find the nearest local tip to you which can take rigid plastic. Go to www.recyclenow.com/local-recycling, click on “where to recycle a specific item”, then click “plastic packaging” then “plant pots”. Click “continue” and it will ask for your postcode so it can tell you your nearest rigid plastic waste recycling centre.

They are not very numerous. In the whole of Somerset, Dorset and Hampshire I found just three, in Wimborne, Shepton Mallet and Andover.

My closest one is in Exeter, across the border in Devon (a county where almost all the tips in major towns seem to recycle bulky/rigid plastic: there is a lot of regional variation, it seems). This is a 56.8 mile round trip taking me about an hour and 20 minutes of driving plus time actually spent at the tip.

I am not sure how the environmental accounting works out, but it strikes me that you are undoing a lot of the good you are achieving by recycling your garden plastic by emitting that much pollution into the air as you drive there and back.

Yet another argument, it would seem to me, for reducing and eventually eliminating plastic from the garden rather than trying to use new plastic then recycle.

Anyway: I rang the nice lady at the Exeter recycling centre to ask what, exactly, they can take out of my garden.

She said there is no truth in the rumours that black pots are not recyclable whereas brown and green ones are; she said it really doesn’t matter what colour your pots are, black, green, pink or diarrhoea coloured, they all go in the same skip.

The pots have to be clean: so I’m afraid you must give them a quick dunk in a bucket of water first to wash off any excess compost. Time-consuming, but then you won’t be doing it forever as you’ll eventually be banishing plastic from your garden so you won’t need to. Right?

But what about non-rigid plastic: compost sacks, for example?

There is currently no facility for recycling these. They are made of polypropylene (PP 5 in the triangle) and therefore will have to go into the landfill skip along with the torn fruit netting and the polystyrene bedding trays. This is another one for my lengthening list of Things to Investigate Further: watch this space.

(Option 2 – taking your pots to the local garden centre – follows shortly…)

Research

The plastics in your garden

There’s a huge range of plastics in common use in the garden. Here’s the breakdown:

PET1: Polyethylene Terephthalate: marked with a 1 on the triangle. Very commonly recycled, can break down when exposed for long periods of time to light or heat.

Used in: Practically nothing in the garden. It’s the stuff drinks bottles are made of and too unstable for most uses as it breaks down to easily to withstand sunshine and weather.

HDPE: High Density Polyethylene (Polythene): marked with a 2 on the triangle: doesn’t break down easily, resists UV rays and very heat tolerant, coping with -100 to 80C – one of the most common plastics used in the garden because of these properties.

Used in: most black, brown and green rigid plant pots; seed trays; the containers you buy pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser in; insect-proof mesh

How to avoid: Use biodegradable pots; use wooden seed trays; make your own pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser from the plants you grow; and I am still experimenting with alternatives to insect-proof mesh. Calico is looking expensive, but promising.

PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride: marked with a 3 on the triangle. Used in plastic pipes and irrigation. Most contain chemicals known as phthalates, helping the PVC to be more durable, flexible etc. But phthalates are very harmful to humans.)

Use in gardens: hosepipes

How to avoid: rubber hosepipe might seem a good alternative, but many are synthetic rubber which is basically plastic. Better just not to use a hose: use a metal watering can instead.

LDPE: Low Density Polyethylene (Polythene): marked with a 4 on the triangle. Single use plastics used in things like plastic produce bags and bin liners. It came along after HDPE and shares many of the same characteristics – so very safe in a wide range of températures and doesn’t Leach into the soil.

Use in gardens: Single-use packaging around mail-order items

How to avoid: Buy from nurseries and garden centres or find a supplier who doesn’t pack in plastic (easier said than done…)

PP: Polypropylene: marked with a 5 on the triangle. Used in products that require injection moulding like straws, bottle caps, food containers. Not as tolerant to heat as HDPE or LDPE, generally safe for use with food and the garden.

Use in gardens: Some more flimsy plant pots (eg seedling modules); Horticultural fleece is made from woven polypropylene.

How to avoid: Use newspaper pots instead of modules; wrap plants in hessian and straw instead; or just avoid growing particularly tender plants.

PS: Polystyrene: marked with a 6 on the triangle. One of the most widely used types of plastic, but one of the most harmful to the environment as it breaks down very quickly into very small particles, and tends not to last very long.

Use in gardens: Bedding plant trays and packaging for mail order plants

How to avoid: Raise your own bedding plants, or buy from a supplier who doesn’t use polystyrene trays. Buy from nurseries and garden centres or find a supplier who uses biodegradable cornstarch packing instead.

Polycarbonate: marked with a 7 on the triangle (this actually means any plastic other than those listed above – but usually polycarbonate or polylactide). Polycarbonate is the most harmful plastic we have ever created: proven repeatedly to leach BPA (Bisphenol A) – shown to cause reproductive problems in animals and linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes in humans.

Use in gardens: Plastic non-breakable greenhouses and cold frames.

How to avoid: Use glass instead.